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Vulnerable Pacific Islands look to data to cope with disasters and help heal the environment

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Mention the tropical islands of the Pacific and thoughts of soft sand, blue lagoons and swaying palm trees come readily to mind. But there is an ominous flip side to this picture-postcard image: These are among the world’s most vulnerable places for natural disasters and the impact of climate change.

 

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Funafuti in the low-lying island country of Tuvalu. Photo: Getty.

 

Storms and hurricanes are becoming more intense and destructive. Coral reefs are dying as ocean temperatures climb. Rising sea levels are eating away at fragile coastlines. And some low-lying atolls could soon disappear under the waves.

Meanwhile, human-made scourges, like floating plastic garbage and overfishing are taking a toll on marine ecosystems.

 

The problems are massive and some may never be solved completely.

Nonetheless, researchers and policymakers across the region are optimistic.

They say that with timely, relevant, actionable and accurate insights, much can be done to make their islands more resilient to crises.

The key can be found in data. Enter the Pacific Community (SPC), the principal scientific and technical organization for 27 countries and territories in, or associated with, the region.

It is launching Digital Earth Pacific – a new analytics platform that will dig into mountains of freely available environmental data that is constantly being amassed by scientists and earth observation satellites.

 

Built on Microsoft’s Planetary Computer, it will use artificial intelligence (AI) and immense processing power in the cloud to access, analyze and model data from multiple sources.

The insights generated will help Pacific Island governments and planners make better choices.

 

 
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A weather satellite took this shot of a powerful hurricane sweeping over Fiji and Tonga. Photo: Getty.

 

A weather satellite took this shot of a powerful hurricane sweeping over Fiji and Tonga. Photo: Getty.

“This information is basically just sitting in data stores in other parts of the world, but until now, the Pacific nations haven’t been able to use it,” says Andrew Jones, SPC’s outgoing Geoscience, Energy and Maritime Division director.

“This will help them to make decisions around their most critical issues.”

The development of this new platform comes as one Pacific nation works hard to recover from one of the region’s most spectacular disasters in decades.

In January, the Hunga Tonga Hunga Ha’apai undersea volcano blew apart with an estimated force equivalent to 10 megatons of TNT, rocking the Kingdom of Tonga.

Deafening booms from the eruption were heard as far away as Alaska. A column of dust and debris soared into the stratosphere and blanketed the capital Nuku’alofa in choking ash and pumice rain.

 

Within minutes, a wall of water raced in from the sea. Cars and homes were washed away. Boats were tossed out of the harbor and communications were cut.

Other tsunamis devastated outlying islands or shot out across the open ocean, eventually reaching the shores of Japan, Australia and even the west coast of the U.S.

 
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A satellite photograph of a massive dust cloud thrown up by an undersea volcanic eruption near Tonga. Photo: CIMSS, SSEC, NOAA, JMA.

 

Jones says analysis of data gathered by satellites before, during and after the eruption can help with recovery efforts, including for example, assessing crop damage and water contamination.

 

“The fact that you have baseline data – the picture of what is normal – particularly for the same month or season, means you can tell where you have lost plantation or where there might be ash in the water.”

The threats of volcanic activity, earthquakes and tsunamis are ever-present in this region, which sits astride the Pacific Ring of Fire, an arc of volcanos and seismic fault lines that stretches from the west coasts of South and North America, across to Japan, through the Philippines and Indonesia and south to New Zealand.

Jones theorizes that data analysis might one day help predict eruptions. “The other potential use could be around early warning,” he says.

 

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